XXIII

BEOWULF'S FIGHT WITH GRENDEL'S MOTHER

          Beowulf spake, Ecgtheow's son:
          "Recall now, oh, famous kinsman of Healfdene,
          Prince very prudent, now to part I am ready,
          Gold-friend of earlmen, what erst we agreed on,
5       Should I lay down my life in lending thee assistance,
          When my earth-joys were over, thou wouldst evermore serve me
          In stead of a father; my faithful thanemen,
          My trusty retainers, protect thou and care for,
          Fall I in battle: and, Hrothgar belovèd,
10      Send unto Higelac the high-valued jewels
          Thou to me hast allotted. The lord of the Geatmen
          May perceive from the gold, the Hrethling may see it
          When he looks on the jewels, that a gem-giver found I
          Good over-measure, enjoyed him while able.
15      And the ancient heirloom Unferth permit thou,
          The famed one to have, the heavy-sword splendid
          The hard-edgèd weapon; with Hrunting to aid me,
          I shall gain me glory, or grim-death shall take me."
          The atheling of Geatmen uttered these words and
20      Heroic did hasten, not any rejoinder
          Was willing to wait for; the wave-current swallowed
          The doughty-in-battle. Then a day's-length elapsed ere
          He was able to see the sea at its bottom.
          Early she found then who fifty of winters
25      The course of the currents kept in her fury,
          Grisly and greedy, that the grim one's dominion
          Some one of men from above was exploring.
          Forth did she grab them, grappled the warrior
          With horrible clutches; yet no sooner she injured
30      His body unscathèd: the burnie out-guarded,
          That she proved but powerless to pierce through the armor,
          The limb-mail locked, with loath-grabbing fingers.
          The sea-wolf bare then, when bottomward came she,
          The ring-prince homeward, that he after was powerless
35      (He had daring to do it) to deal with his weapons,
          But many a mere-beast tormented him swimming,
          Flood-beasts no few with fierce-biting tusks did
          Break through his burnie, the brave one pursued they.
          The earl then discovered he was down in some cavern
40      Where no water whatever anywise harmed him,
          And the clutch of the current could come not anear him,
          Since the roofed-hall prevented; brightness a-gleaming
          Fire-light he saw, flashing resplendent.
          The good one saw then the sea-bottom's monster,
45      The mighty mere-woman; he made a great onset
          With weapon-of-battle, his hand not desisted
          From striking, that war-blade struck on her head then
          A battle-song greedy. The stranger perceived then
          The sword would not bite, her life would not injure,
50      But the falchion failed the folk-prince when straitened:
          Erst had it often onsets encountered,
          Oft cloven the helmet, the fated one's armor:
          'Twas the first time that ever the excellent jewel
          Had failed of its fame. Firm-mooded after,
55      Not heedless of valor, but mindful of glory,
          Was Higelac's kinsman; the hero-chief angry
          Cast then his carved-sword covered with jewels
          That it lay on the earth, hard and steel-pointed;
          He hoped in his strength, his hand-grapple sturdy.
60      So any must act whenever he thinketh
          To gain him in battle glory unending,
          And is reckless of living. The lord of the War-Geats
          (He shrank not from battle) seized by the shoulder
          The mother of Grendel; then mighty in struggle
65      Swung he his enemy, since his anger was kindled,
          That she fell to the floor. With furious grapple
          She gave him requital early thereafter,
          And stretched out to grab him; the strongest of warriors
          Faint-mooded stumbled, till he fell in his traces,
70      Foot-going champion. Then she sat on the hall-guest
          And wielded her war-knife wide-bladed, flashing,
          For her son would take vengeance, her one only bairn.
          His breast-armor woven bode on his shoulder;
          It guarded his life, the entrance defended
75      'Gainst sword-point and edges. Ecgtheow's son there
          Had fatally journeyed, champion of Geatmen,
          In the arms of the ocean, had the armor not given,
          Close-woven corslet, comfort and succor,
          And had God most holy not awarded the victory,
80      All-knowing Lord; easily did heaven's
          Ruler most righteous arrange it with justice;
          Uprose he erect ready for battle.

Footnotes

  1. This line demonstrates another good example of alliteration, an expected literary device in Old English poetry. Repeating the initial consonant sounds can help the audience to remember lines and important images, particularly if the story is shared out loud. In this case, the repeated g sound even calls to mind the sinister Grendel.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. This has been a controversial line in the poem for decades because it states that Beowulf swam underwater for "a day’s-length”; other translations state a similar length of time, with Seamus Heaney’s translation claiming that it took Beowulf “the best part of a day” to reach the bottom. Some Beowulf critics have argued that the line should be translated to say that Beowulf dived into the mere in full daylight and not that he swam underwater for a full day.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. This famous quote has varied from translation to translation. Notably, in Seamus Heaney’s translation, this quote by Beowulf simply reads “I shall gain glory or die.”

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. Prior to plunging into the lake, Beowulf declares that Unferth should be compensated by giving Unferth Beowulf's own sword should Beowulf perish and lose Hrunting. This act and Beowulf's willingness to gain glory with Hrunting show how Beowulf doesn't resent Unferth for his earlier insults.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. Beowulf does two important things in this passage. First, he demonstrates proper respect and loyalty for his king, Higelac, by ensuring that his gifts will be sent to the king should he fall. Second, even though he is stalwart and brave, Beowulf's indication that he might not survive the battle represents a very real human reaction to the extraordinary and supernatural situation before him.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. Beowulf further demonstrates his bravery and his qualities as an ideal leader. Facing death, he concerns himself with the well-being of his men and asks Hrothgar to be their guardian should he fall, thereby ensuring the safety of his men.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor